Hell of the Living Dead
Original Title: Virus – l’inferno dei morti viventi
Aka: Zombie Creping Flesh
Directed by: Bruno Mattei (as Vincent Dawn)
Distributed by: Anchor Bay
You can not, not like Bruno Mattei. With a numerous amount of movies to his name – or rather, not to his name, as he almost never directed a movie under his real name – the guy got his fingers in the jam jar of almost every possibly genre, and no matter how much he used to get slammed by the critics, some of the low budget movies he left us with are still terribly entertaining movies.
Starting out in his twenties as an assistant at his fathers film editing studio, the step to becoming a film editor was a logic one, and after spending almost a decade of slicing and splicing supposedly more than a hundred movies for the likes of Sergio Sollima, Roberto Bianci Montero and Nick Nostro – even a few for Jess Franco (the rougher cut of 99 Women 1969 and Count Dracula 1970). Shifting between editing and directing he made his debut with the drama Armida, il dramma di una sposa 1970, then returned to he edit bay to assemble movies like Ferdinando Merighi’s The French Sex Murders 1972, and Joe D’Amato’s Eve Nera (Black Cobra) before his career really took off with the Nazisplotiation flicks S.S. Girls (Cassa privata per le SS) and S.S. Extermination Love Camp (KZ9 – Lager di Sterminio) both 1977. From there on it was like a run away train stopping at sexploitation, women in prison, sci-fi post apocalypse, zombie armageddon, all in porn, nunsploitation, spaghetti western and some Mondo and monster shark stations along the way. You name it and Mattei had been there in one-way or another.
Always the storyteller – and that’s without any evaluation of his work, it speaks for itself – Mattei made a return to the fantastic world of low budget cinema, and went right for the hearts of fans with pieces that mirror some of his most favoured seventies and eighties classics –the beloved W.I.P., Sexploitation, Zombies and Cannibals genres. Leaving a string of fifteen straight to Video productions, most of them shot in the Philippines with small crews and a handful of actors Mattei stayed true to his roots as a storyteller and even though he stared death in the eye – he continued to complete his final movie – Zombie: The Beginning (Zombi: La creazione) 2007.
It’s difficult to name your favourite Bruno Mattei movies, as he was such a versatile maker of genre pieces, there’s almost no genre that is left untouched in his wide output, although any fan of Italian zombie/post apocalypse fare will tell you that Hell of the Living Dead and the animal monster rampage piece Rats – notti di terrore (Rats : Night of Terror) 1984 are among those that are required, and repeated viewings.
Hell of the Living Dead is a perfect example of the how Bruno Mattei crafted the most of his more known pieces, how he constantly either relied on predecessors as influence, or blatantly just ripped them off – not that this is a bad thing, as certain of his movies have more recognition than the originals. Hell of the Living Dead is an obvious cash in on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead 1978, and the success of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, the movie freely uses themes and scenes reminiscent of the two movies, and if that wasn’t enough the film also uses a catalogue music by Italian progressive rockers Goblin – who also supplied the score to Dario Argento’s European cut of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead titled Zombi in Italy, but more on that later - and a whole load of stock footage from Barbet Schroeder’s La vallée (The Valley) 1972, Ferbus, Garny & Zéno’s Des Mortes (Of the Dead) and several others sources which at sometimes helps the narrative and at others is just plain confusing.
In all simplicity Hell of the Living Dead opens on shots of a remote chemical laboratory, slash, factory where life is chugging along as normal. A series of routine checks are being made to document the safety of the plant… and needless to say that’s when the shit starts hitting the fan. Two technicians bitching about chicks and how much they hate their job are the unfortunate first victims of a rabid rat and a sinister looking green cloud that sets the zombie plague in motion.
A band of elite commandos (Lt. Mike London - José Gras, Vincent - Selan Karay, Osborne - Joseph Luís Fonoll and the magnificent Franco Garofalo as the insane Zantoro) are after taking out a band of kidnappers – possibly inspired by the SAS storming of the Iranian Embassy siege in London that same year– sent out on their next mission, to reach the HOPE centre and find out what the heck is going on. On route they pick up the minute TV team consisting of reporter Lia Rousseau [Margit Evelyn Newton] and cameraman Max [Gabriel Renom] who just witnessed their travelling companions being guzzled down by the zombies. The commandos arrive just in the nick of time and don’t thing twice about putting a few slugs though the heads of the zombies – not even the seven year old zombie kid – that’s just how friggin' hard they are.
The mismatched group make their way through New Guinea stopping off at a village –giving Newton an opportunity to get her kit off and walk amongst the natives’ naked- where they yet again fight their way out of an attacking zombie horde. Keep an eye open for sudden background continuity errors and you’ll now know that those are the scenes of extra gore that Fragasso shot along with the added ending back in Italy after the Spanish shoot wrapped. Slowly but surely they make their way cross the country diminishing in numbers during each encounter with the living dead until they reach the HOPE centre and the very bleak and shocking climax hit’s us hard in the face.
Based off an idea by Spaniard José Maria Cunillés and later fleshed out by Mattei and his regular working partner, Claudio Fragasso (and his wife Rosella Drudi) the movie takes to comment on the problem-solution of overpopulation which at the time in the late seventies and early eighties was a major topic of discussion – just like global warming is today. Although this one has the scornful Italian twist to it, as the HOPE centre are not actually looking for a way to help the overpopulation, but rather eradicate it… Taking the production to Spain – as it was a Spanish-Italian coproduction – the movie was shot in just five weeks. As the Spanish producers for some reason didn’t want Mattei to use one of his common pseudonyms, the demanded that he come up with something new, and that’s how the name Vincent Dawn was created.
I find it somewhat unfair that Fragasso and Mattei get so much slack for being crap directors making crap movies – in Hell of the Living Dead they actually take some time to set up the hardened elite team as they bust into the US Embassy and without further ado take out all the terrorists. The movie could definitely have started off right in New Guinea with the attack at the mission house, but instead we get this little starting stretch that establishes the characters, which I in some ways interpret as an attempt at setting up the rough traits of the commando characters. That tight shit kicking sequence is all there to establish the ruthlessness of the commandos, that pretty soon will be set in contrast to the moderate approach to things that Lia and Max take in the situation they find themselves in. This also establishes a great rift in character between Lia/Max and the Commandos’ that brings certain driving force to the narrative.
At first it may seem as a random action sequence, but it’s really a neat little thread concerning the HOPE centre – yeah that one that we saw in the opening sequence – as the activists/terrorists know about the cynical experiments that HOPE are performing, and that their research is more of an extermination plan than a real solution to the overpopulation problem. There will be several referrals to this theme throughout the movie.
There’s also a little love story if you like that is brooding underneath the surface, and that’s the one between one of the commando’s and Lia – it’s not the most elaborate relationship, but there are feelings there and it does bring some hope to he narrative… if you never have seen an Italian genre piece before that is. Regular fans know that shit goes down hard in the world of Italian exploitation flicks, and nothing is sacred there. Perhaps this is why we opt for the cheaper remakes on successful stories – we want to avoid mainstream conventions and predictability. But it still goes to show that Fragasso and Mattei weren’t simple hacks that just tossed stuff at the screen, but actually did have some modus operandi that they where after. Even though they may have lost it behind corny dialogue, cheap acting and completely random stock footage along the way. Just how many times can you scream and squiggle your eyebrows around when you see a zombie eating your mates? Well that's a beer drinking game if there ever was one, so now you have anew use for Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead!
Finally let’s just take a quick listen to that soundtrack which at the start of the movie is shoved in our faces through a huge Goblin logo. So now you think that you are going to enjoy a great score by the great Goblin – which you certainly do – but it’s mainly stacks lifted off other movies under the direction of Gianni Dell’Orso. Obviously they had “obtained “ rights to the Goblin catalogue and helped themselves to a few of Goblins previous scores to other movies. If you know your Goblin you will recognise the scores from Dario Argento’s Italian edit of Dawn of the Dead, “Quiet Drops” from Joe D’Amato’s Buio Omega, and Luigi Cozzi’s Alien Contamination. It can be distracting at times, but then again those scores are fantastic and they get the job done in Mattei’s sardonic first entry into the Italian zombie chunk blower genre.
Hell of the Living Dead is a definitive must for all fans of Italian Exploitation fare. Without a doubt one of Mattei’s finest moments – mordant, aggressive and a shit load of fun – what more could you ask for.
Dolby Digital Mono, English dubbed dialouge
Hell Rats of the Living Dead – an interview with the late Bruno Mattei, the theatrical trailer and a gallery of posters and stills.